Census: State’s Hmong on the move again

By MARGIE MASON Associated Press Writer
Tuesday August 28, 2001

SAN FRANCISCO — Florence Vangay was once a refugee in search of opportunity. Like thousands of Hmong, she fled her native Laos to escape persecution after the Vietnam War, and eventually settled in California’s Central Valley. Now she has joined a growing wave of Southeast Asian immigrants again on the move, looking for a better life. 

Vangay, 38, left Merced two months ago for St. Paul, Minn. — a path many Hmong have taken over the past decade, according to analysis of recent census numbers. 

“I wanted to find a place for my children ... (where) after they graduate they can find jobs easily,” she said. “After that, we can stay together.” 

California still has the country’s largest populations of Laotians and Hmong, a hill tribe that received refugee status after helping the CIA fight communism in Southeast Asia. But welfare reform and job competition have driven many Hmong to other states, primarily Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Carolina. 

It’s a secondary migration that is reshaping some parts of America. 

Ramsey County, Minn., which includes St. Paul, is now home to the country’s biggest Hmong population. With 24,389 Hmong, during the 1990s Ramsey County overtook Fresno County and its 22,371 Hmong. 

California began the 1990s as home to more than half the country’s Hmong. It now has less than 40 percent. Minnesota and Wisconsin now jointly share 45 percent of the country’s Hmong population. Even so, Census 2000 showed a 39 percent increase in California’s Hmong population totaling 65,095. 

Five years ago, Congress overhauled welfare to require that many aid recipients find work. Denied the same level of public benefits, some Hmong migrated to places with lower costs of living and better job prospects. 

“I think what we saw after 1996 was a secondary migration of people who left California or urban cities to go to places where they could find jobs and affordable housing,” said KaYing Yang, executive director of the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center in Washington, D.C. “The Hmong left the San Joaquin Valley to seize opportunity.” 

Like many Hmong who live in tight-knit clans, Vangay already had several family members living in Minnesota, making the transition easier for her four children. The Hmong also have a long history of migrations ever since being expelled from China hundreds of years ago. More recently, they scattered across the United States when they began arriving after the Vietnam War. 

Many Hmong eventually came to California’s Central Valley to farm. Laotians also congregated in California from the cities where they were first settled. 

But that trend also began to reverse during the 1990s, census data show. 

The Laotian population in California dropped 4 percent from 58,058 to 55,456 over the decade.  

It has grown primarily in Minnesota, Washington, North Carolina and Illinois. 

“It’s becoming more difficult for people to find good jobs here,” said Khammany Mathavongsy, board member of United Laotian Community Development in Oakland. “People do not have high-tech skills to begin with. They’re moving to the East Coast ... where there are more assembly line jobs.” 

The census counted Southeast Asians from eight groups — Cambodian, Filipino, Hmong, Indonesian, Laotian, Malaysian, Thai and Vietnamese. 

Yang said she believes there was an undercount. Even the Vietnamese population, which grew by about 300,000 to nearly 1 million nationwide, is probably low, she said. She attributed the numbers to language barriers and an ingrained fear of submitting personal information to the government. 

“One of our board members had heard an elderly person saying, ’Oh no, they’re counting us again the way the Khmer Rouge counted us just before they started killing us,”’ Yang said. “You never get rid of those kind of fears.” 

Yang’s organization says about 1.3 million Laotian, Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees entered the United States between 1975 and 1998, and estimates that there are 1.5 million living in America today. The 2000 Census puts that population at 1.3 million. 

In California, the Vietnamese population grew 60 percent, with numbers in Orange and Santa Clara counties nearly doubling. 

Unlike the Hmong, many Vietnamese are familiar with urban areas. 

“The Vietnamese are from cities and knew what to expect,” said Leonard Andaya, who teaches Southeast Asian history at the University of Hawaii, Manoa. “The Hmong faces the biggest disadvantages of all refugees.” 

Cambodians increased by 3 percent in California to 70,232, but Yang said that number also is probably low. California, Washington, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania have the largest Cambodian populations. 

Malaysians were the only other group besides Laotians to lose population in California, dropping from 2,204 to 1,948 people. 

Andaya said many Malaysians who come to America are of Chinese descent and often stay only long enough to get an education. 

“The Malaysians have a good economy and a nice lifestyle,” Andaya said. “There were probably economic reasons why many would rather stay in Malaysia.” 


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